Thursday, April 9, 2015

Three degrees of separation

Magnet ginko and color circle
A friend has written me of a book he is reviewing: Weimar, from Enlightenment to the Present by historian Michael H. Kater (Yale UP, 2014). Not having been aware of it, I went up to Columbia University and checked it out of the library. The first chapter concerns Weimar's "golden age," from 1770 to 1832. For the Goethe "Kenner," a few mistakes stand out. For instance, was Winckelmann murdered by "his male lover," as Kater writes? "Lover" suggests a degree of acquaintance that doesn't fit the facts. Kater also brings up copycat suicides after the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Maybe others will disagree, but were the papers Goethe delivered at the Friday Society "learned"? There is throughout a scholarship characterized by heavy reliance on secondary sources.

What really bothers me about Kater's account is its resolutely negative tone, which continues into the second chapter: "Promising the Silver Age, 1832–1863." This chapter enumerates all of Weimar's failures to live up to the golden age. As Kater does correctly point out, Weimar was a backwater industrially and agriculturally, remaining "behind the norm in other German states despite some impetus caused by the Industrial Revolution." As in Goethe's time, the main enterprises in Weimar until mid-century were "handicraft shops, tightly controlled by ancient codes." Friedrich Justin Bertuch's early industrial efforts, continuing under his heirs, are mentioned (although Kater fails to cite Daniel Purdy's study of Bertuch in his bibliography), as are the presence of a few small-scale factories. "Ambitious entrepreneurs," as he writes, those wishing to start something on a large scale, were discouraged. His prime example is that of Weimar-born Carl Friedrich Zeiß, who was barred by the Weimar town administrators from setting up a mechanics shop, "for fear he would cause undue competition to the two existing establishments." Thus, he moved to Jena and set up his workshop, which was the start of the Zeiß optical works. Kater's judgment: "Weimar had missed the entrepreneurial chance of a century."

I would not have thought much about the matter had my friend not been curious to ascertain the veracity of the account about Carl Friedrich Zeiß. It happens that among my circle of friends is a man who, until his retirement, occupied a very high position at Zeiss, and I asked him about Kater's description. He wrote me that Kater's account is "generally" true, but that the matter is more complex. Here is the beginning of the story, from the first chapter of the official history of Zeiss: Carl Zeiss: Die Geschichte eines Unternehmens, 1846-1905 by Edith Hellmuth and Wolfgang Mühlfriedel. As will be seen, there is a connection with Goethe.

Watch with guilloché pattern
Carl Friedrich was born in Weimar on Feburary 11, 1816. His father, Johann Gottfried (1785–1849), was a master turner (in German, Drechsler), but clearly one of an inventive bent. Among other things, he built a machine for producing the guilloché technique. The family was an upwardly mobile family: two older brothers, for instance, made their way into the academic sphere, but Carl Friedrich, like his father, had more of a mechanical and theoretical bent. After leaving school and through his father's acquaintance with Friedrich Körner, he began at the age of 18 as an apprentice as Körner's workshop in Jena.

Körner had been "Hofmechanik" in Weimar since 1810, going to Jena in the same capacity at the university, where he received the doctorate and became Privatdozent. At this time he and Goethe corresponded in connection with Goethe's scientific studies, and Körner was also called upon to manufacture optical, meteorological, and astronomical instruments, for instance, for the Jena observatory. According to the natural science supplement of the Goethe-Handbuch, Goethe consulted him in connection with the Farbenlehre. He built an apparatus for displaying the entopic colors, and he produced glass that showed the entopic "Farbmuster" requested by Goethe.

An achromatic doublet, which combines crown glass and flint glass
The Handbuch makes a mysterious reference to Körner falling out of favor with Goethe and with the duke in 1824, which perhaps had to do with his failure to produce a satisfactory flint glass. Interestingly, as I glean from Hellmuth and Mühlfriedel, this attempt was carried out with Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, professor of chemistry in Jena (and also he of the Döbereiner Triad), whom Goethe likewise involved in his optical studies and who was in general a go-to person for Goethe's scientific questions.

So, this was the Jena environment in which Carl Friedrich Zeiß began his apprenticeship, learning the operation of fine tools and machinery and the manufacture of microscopes and scientific instruments. Körner allowed his apprentice to take scientific courses at the university –– which included algebra, analytic geometry, trigonometry, mineralogy, and optics –– although, according to the Zeiss company history, he did not initiate Carl Friedrich into the secrets of producing glass. The young man completed his apprenticeship in 1838 and went a wandering, continuing to solidify his expertise, which included a period in Vienna and Berlin. He returned to Weimar in the fall of 1845. He did indeed apply for permission to open his own workshop there and was turned down because the city already had two mechanists, and the powers-that-be did not believe there was enough business for a third.

But would Zeiss have become the world-famous optical producer had he stayed in Weimar? Of course not. It wasn't so much that Weimar missed an opportunity, as that it did not have the facilities or the faculty of Jena or its university. By the time Zeiss settled there, Jena was the intellectual center of the Duchy of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, and much of the reason for its eminence was of course due to Goethe, who fostered and supported so many of the scientific institutes and collections there, not to mention cultivating contact with the scientists.

Apollo mission photograph with Hasselblad camera with Zeiss lenses
It was also a period presaged in Goethe's works of the 1820s, a time of a "grundlegende Umwälzung in der gewerblichen Wirtschaft und im Verkehrswesen." The Customs Union of 1834 fostered a larger domestic market, and there arose a domestic industry producing advanced machinery based on inventions already in use in England. Carl Friedrich arrived at the moment when there was the greatest demand for modern "Arbeits- und Antriebsmaschinen aus den verschiedenen Gewerbbezweigen." These quotes come from Hellmuth and Mühlfriedel, according to whom he founded his workshop in Jena in 1846 for the production of simple microscopes, measuring instruments, and other precise optical and mechanical instruments. But, as they write, he also possessed the combination of technical and theoretical expertise required for the new industrial age in Germany: "Der junge Geschäftsinhaber [hatte] sich fachlich sorgfältig auf eine selbständige Existenz vorbereitet." Becoming a world-famous concern, however, was long in coming. For instance, there was rent to be paid for living expenses and for work rooms. He borrowed 100 Taler from his father in 1846, then a further 100 from his brother Eduard and an even larger sum from a relative.

Jena itself had only 6,000 inhabitants. Like Weimar, it was a small city, its businesses consisting of small tradesmen who supplied the local economy. It was in this situation that Carl Zeiss began his mechanics workshop, gradually expanding his customer base. After Körner's death in 1847, he inherited a number of the master's clients. Thus, we come full circle. If Goethe had not been so passionate about optics, would Carl Zeiss have become one of the best German scientific instrument makers?

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